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Third Circuit Won’t Free Doctor From Ex-Professor’s Defamation Row

Third Circuit Won’t Free Doctor From Ex-Professor’s Defamation Row

The Third Circuit ruled Monday that a physician must face defamation claims for making sexual harassment allegations against a former Temple University medical professor, reasoning that a lower court properly ordered a probe into her motivation for making the report to school officials. A three-judge panel said it was unpersuaded by Dr. Shivani Dua’s argument that a Pennsylvania federal judge erred in interpreting the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Schanne v. Addis to require a “factual inquiry into her subjective intent” for the purposes of applying immunity from defamation suit.

Dua’s emailed report led to a workplace investigation that resulted in the firing of Dr. Michael Weinik, onetime interim chair of the school’s physical medicine and rehabilitation program. Dua argued that she’s immune from Weinik’s defamation claims because the law protects statements made in connection with “quasi-judicial” proceedings.

However, “Schanne held that application of the judicial proceeding privilege depends on the speaker’s subjective intent and reasoned that a factual inquiry into that intent may be necessary to apply the privilege,” U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas M. Hardiman wrote for the panel. “Because Dua’s intent to initiate a quasi-judicial proceeding is not plain from the face of her email, the district court did not err by requiring a factual inquiry,” the decision continued. The appeals judges also found that the lower court’s ruling was ineligible for appellate review under the collateral order doctrine, which is a “narrow” exception to the requirement that matters on appeal must be final orders.

The “stringent” exception requires that an order “conclusively” resolve a disputed question, answer an “important issue” entirely separate from the suit’s merits, and be “effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment.” “Because the district court’s order denying Dua’s motion to dismiss satisfies none of these conditions, we lack appellate jurisdiction,” the decision said.

In the report at issue, Dua emailed an administrator for Temple’s graduate medical education program and described a “pattern of sexual harassment Weinik committed against Dr. Dua and other female residents and patients, including unwanted touching and sexually inappropriate comments,” according to appeal records. In the email she asked to remain anonymous, saying that Weinik is well-connected in what is a small field, the appeal brief said. Dua’s email expressed that she didn’t want the same thing to happen to others, the brief said.

Weinik denies the allegations and contends that Dua’s report was part of a scheme to undermine his career and reputation by a vengeful colleague whose job was in peril. Making an argument against quasi-judicial proceeding immunity for Dua, Joseph R. Heffern of Rogers Counsel, an attorney for Weinik, told the Third Circuit in September that Dua was no longer a resident in the program by the time she sent the email, which he characterized as an anonymous “one-off” note that wasn’t part of an established process.

In his June 2019 complaint, Weinik claimed he was installed as the physical medicine and rehabilitation program’s interim chair to eventually replace the prior chair, Dr. Ian Maitin. Weinik alleged Maitin enlisted Dua to participate in a smear campaign in order to save his job. Dua sent the email with the sexual harassment allegations in January 2018. Weinik pointed out in his appeal brief that the email “never expressly sought any type of redress or requested” that Temple initiate an investigation or judicial proceeding against him. Nonetheless, Temple officials conducted an investigation and held a disciplinary hearing in July 2018.

Dua refused to be interviewed or participate in the hearing, according to Weinik. A hearing panel unanimously voted against terminating Weinik, but Temple’s Medical Staff Executive Committee overturned that vote “without having seen or heard any of the testimony presented during the hearing” and fired him, Weinik claimed.

His lawsuit asserted claims for violation of due process and breach of contract against Temple and defamation-based claims against the university, Dua and another former physical medicine and rehabilitation resident who is now deceased. In a July 2020 opinion, U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied dismissal motions by Dua and Temple.Temple did not participate in Dua’s Third Circuit appeal.

An attorney for Weinik, Lance Rogers of Rogers Counsel, hailed the ruling. “I think it was a well-reasoned decision, and I’m grateful to the Third Circuit for taking the time to consider all the arguments,” Rogers told Law360 Monday.

Representatives for Dua didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

U.S. Circuit Judges Michael A. Chagares, Thomas M. Hardiman and Paul B. Matey sat on the panel for the Third Circuit.

Weinik is represented by Lance Rogers and Joseph R. Heffern of Rogers Counsel.

Dua is represented by Danielle Banks, Chelsea Biemiller and Adam D. Brown of Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young LLP.

The case is Michael Weinik v. Temple University of the Commonwealth et al., case number 20-2525, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Third Circuit Won’t Free Doc From Ex-Professor’s Defamation Row

By Jeannie O’Sullivan · Law360 (December 13, 2021, 7:33 PM EST)

–Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.